Exposure to PFAS and Phenols May Be Linked to Cancer Risk

Get Permission

Investigators have discovered that significantly higher levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and phenols may be present in patients with breast, ovarian, skin, and endometrial cancers, according to a recent study published by Cathey et al in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology. Although the new findings did not prove that exposures to these chemicals led to cancer diagnoses, they indicated that exposure may play a role in certain types of cancers.


PFAS has contaminated water, food, and individuals through products such as Teflon pans, waterproof clothing, stain-resistant carpets and fabrics, and food packaging. The chemicals are often referred to as forever chemicals because they don’t degrade and can last for decades in the environment. PFAS is also capable of remaining in individuals’ systems anywhere from several months to years.

“These PFAS chemicals appear to disrupt hormone function in women, which is one potential mechanism that increases [the] odds of hormone-related cancers,” emphasized lead study author Amber Cathey, PhD, a research faculty scientist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Study Methods and Results

In the new study, the investigators used the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to analyze the blood and urine samples of over 10,000 patients. They assessed the patients’ current exposures to PFAS and phenols in relation to previous cancer diagnoses as well as racial and ethnic disparities in these correlations.

The investigators found that patients who had higher exposures to the long-chained PFAS compound PFDE were twice as likely to have had a previous melanoma diagnosis. Female patients with higher exposures to two other long-chained PFAS compounds—PFNA and PFUA—had twice the likelihood of having a previous melanoma diagnosis.

Additionally, investigators found a link between PFNA and a previous diagnosis of endometrial cancer. Female patients who had a higher exposure to phenols such as bisphenol A and 2,5-dichlorophenol—chemicals found in plastics, dyes, and a byproduct in wastewater treatment— had higher odds of having a previous ovarian cancer diagnosis.

The investigators also noted that PFAS chemicals may have been associated with ovarian and endometrial cancers in White female patients, and the PFAS chemical MPAH and phenol chemical BPF may have been associated with breast cancer in non-White female patients.


“These findings highlight the need to consider PFAS and phenols as whole classes of environmental risk factors for cancer risk in women,” stressed senior study author Max Aung, PhD, Associate Professor of Environmental Health at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine.

“As communities around the country grapple with PFAS contamination, this adds further evidence that supports policymakers developing action to reduce PFAS exposure,” underscored co–study author Tracey J. Woodruff, PhD, MPH, Professor and Director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment and Director of the EaRTH Center at the University of California, San Francisco. “Since PFAS makes up thousands of chemicals, one way to reduce exposures is for [the Environmental Protection Agency] to regulate PFAS as a class of chemicals, rather than one at a time,” she concluded.

Disclosure: The research in this study was funded by the EaRTH Center and the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California, San Francisco. For full disclosures of the study authors, visit

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.